A federal judge has blocked the city of Houston from enforcing a controversial anti-encampment ordinance that targets the homeless.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt on Tuesday issued a temporary restraining order against the city, saying that Houston cannot issue citations or arrest people for sleeping in tents, boxes or other makeshift structures. His ruling on the ACLU of Texas's emergency motion to stop the anti-encampment ordinance comes after police began issuing warnings to homeless people on Thursday.
"The evidence is conclusive that they are involuntarily in public, harmlessly attempting to shelter themselves—an act they cannot realistically forgo, and that is integral to their status as unsheltered homeless individuals," Hoyt wrote. "Enforcement of the City’s ban against the plaintiffs may, therefore, cause them irreparable harm by violating their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment due to their status of 'homelessness.' Moreover, there is no evidence that the City will suffer harm if a restraining order were issued."
Hoyt noted that courts have long held that punishing people for their current state of being, such as being homeless, is unconstitutional. "Simply because the behavior of a person is considered undesirable, yet harmless, does not license the government to criminalize and/or punish such behavior," Hoyt wrote.
The ACLU of Texas sued the city earlier this year on behalf of three homeless people who said they would be harmed by the city's anti-encampment ordinance and its anti-panhandling ordinance. On Thursday, homeless advocate and Black Lives Matter activist Shere Dore was at the homeless camp under U.S. 59 near Wheeler Station when she saw police handing out warnings to homeless people. The warnings read: "Warning: Encampment Violation. A City of Houston law makes it illegal to encamp in a public place in Houston
without permission from the City. You Are Violating This Law . . . If you do not stop encamping in a public place, a police officer may: Give you a ticket...[or] ...Arrest you and take you to jail."
Dore immediately began filming, approaching police as they wrote citations to homeless people who had tents up.
“This injunction is a good thing; we’re not hurting anybody,” said Eugene Stroman, a homeless man who is one of the plaintiffs in the case. “We’re just out here trying to survive without being harassed by the police. You shouldn’t be able to arrest someone for being somewhere when they have no place else to go.”
Alan Bernstein, spokesman for the mayor's office, said this was not the first time police have issued warnings or citations to people in violation of the anti-encampment ordinance. He said roughly 20 people have been cited.
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The restraining order comes just one week after the City of Houston ordered that the U.S. 59 encampment be cleaned up due to public health reasons. Marc Eichenbaum, the mayor's special assistant for homelessness initiatives, said the ordinances were not being enforced at that time, and that homeless people were allowed to store small belongings during the cleanup. Anything left behind, including mattresses, couches and tents, was thrown away. But many homeless put their tents back up once they were allowed to return after the cleanup.
In a statement, Mayor Sylvester Turner again repeated what he has claimed all along: that the anti-encampment ordinance is a tough love-type measure — a way to push homeless people toward permanent housing assistance by making their temporary shelters illegal.
“The city of Houston is disappointed in the order released today," Turner said. "The intent of the ordinance is to take our most vulnerable Houstonians from the streets and place them in permanent supportive housing. I think we can all agree that no one deserves to live in an environment that has been deemed a public health hazard. It is our hope that the court will ultimately conclude that the city of Houston has the right to manage public space by regulating what can be erected there, especially when items impede on the space and pose risks."
From here, the city and plaintiffs will prepare for a preliminary injunction hearing.